A narrative invitation for the new year

I meant to post this earlier, but writing it proved to be more challenging than I anticipated. So, here it is, and it will be going up on my blog today too. I'm sorry I'm not always very good at getting things out to patreon a week early. I appreciate you supporting me even though I'm always doing things at the last minute. 

A post for those of us struggling with New Year's Eve.

cw: death

New Year looming

What do we do, we grieving and caught in heavy emotions, on New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day, and in those early days of the year when we are surrounded by the cultural expectations of “new year, new you,” “turning over a new leaf,” “a new start,” and other markers of newness? Of beginning?

How do we take our unasked-for endings, our losses, our griefs, our pains and sadnesses, our unresolved hurts, into this new year? Into this new decade? What is the proper place for these ongoing experiences of loss?

What are we being asked to leave behind? And who is asking? And what does the asking reveal about what is valued and what is not?

I have been grappling with these questions for the last week. It is not the way I normally approach the new year, which has always been one of my favourite moments on the calendar. But this year, I am not ready. And when I posted about this on my social media, I realized that there are other folks who are also not ready. Many of us have struggled through this year, but are not ready for the new one to start. Many of us are approaching tonight’s symbolic shift from 2019 to 2020, from the ’10s to the ‘20s, with ambivalence or dread. 

There are many reasons for this, but they share, I think, a sense of sadness and loss, a sense that we will be leaving something precious behind when the year is reborn, a sense of exhaustion and depletion. 

This post is meant as an act of solidarity, an offering to my community, an invitation to join with me, clinging to our stories and our selves and each other, rolling over this bumpy transition together.

If you’d like to jump straight to the narrative questions I put together for us, scroll down. 

How quickly the book of grief is written 

I made it through Christmas, and that made the loss more real. All the Christmas traditions that come from my dad and now live on without him, all my memories that now exist in glass, an amorphous solid, still flowing but not as liquid and shifting and dynamic as they were before death. 

Yesterday was one month since dad stepped out of this story and into a new one – for him, I know that he believed firmly that he was stepping into Eternity with a God that he loved, and for me, his story now becomes a long and loving post-script. The relationship doesn’t end, but it changes. The change is profound.

And as January looms, the loss feels deepened again. 

I have always been deeply invested in New Year’s Eve, and in the ritual of marking the passage of time, the liminal space between years. The gap of possibility and renewal.

As I wrote last year in my blog, sometimes this investment has come with intense pressure to “start the year on the right foot,” a sense of anxiety that if I fail to bring the right mood, the right focus, the right thought into the gap, I will be doomed for the year to come. (This, and my birthday, are the two times of year when I become most susceptible to that sneaky, victim-blaming, individualizing, hurtful “law of attraction” discourse.)

This year is different, though.

What I feel is not pressure to begin the year on the right foot, but rather fear that beginning the year at all is already a failure. 

Fear that leaving the year, let alone the decade!, is a betrayal of my dad.

Fear that I will move into 2020, and everything that still aches and squeezes when I think about that relationship and when I think about him being gone… fear that all of those pieces will become crystallized. Not glass, but diamond. Hard. Sharp. Set.

I don’t want to go.

It is the same feeling I had at his house, in the hour after the funeral home had come, and I had stood in the doorway, watching, staying for the final moments as they shrouded his body and moved him to the vehicle. The feeling that once I left, it would be different. It would be real in a different way. It would be ink dry on another page and I would not be able to go back and choose a better word.

It is the same feeling I had that night at my partner’s house, laying in bed, afraid to go to sleep because once I left the day, it would be different. More dried ink on another page.

It is the same feeling I had before I went to sleep on the Friday before the one week, and on the 29th, waiting for the 30th to come, to mark the first month.

This feeling that once the marker passes, then the page is written. The time for reconciliation and conversation done with his death, the time at his home done with stepping out the door, the first day done with sleep, the first week done with waking, the first month… And now, the year changes and takes 2019 with it. The decade changes.

And I know, I know because I am a writer and an editor and a narrative therapist, all selves who know intimately the power of telling and retelling stories, I know that even when the page is written, that’s not the end of the story. I know that I will keep coming back to these moments and these stories, and there will be richness there. I know that.

But I still don’t want to go.

I still am not ready to put up a new calendar, which will never include plans to see dad for a chat in the morning. I still am not ready to think about the things that the new year invites me to think about – iterations of myself, projects, plans, change. 

(I say this, but I am already thinking about plans for this new year. As is always the case, there is no single true story of an experience. This time is not all grief. My feelings are not all dread. There are threads of joy, and there are glimmers in the gloom. I am not ready, but I am okay. And there are parts of me that are ready, and those parts of me are not failures, and they are not betraying dad. If you, too, have multiple stories of this time, that is okay. It is okay.)

Narrative questions

For a moment, I imagined hosting a small narrative conversation at home my home this evening, with a focus on witnessing and honouring each other in our complex feelings about the new year. (Only for a brief moment, because even I don’t have the organizational energy to pull that together in under 48-hours!)

Instead, I offer the questions that I would have asked in that narrative conversation. These questions are informed by the work of Michael White, David Denborough, and the Dulwich Centre.

You can engage with these questions in whatever way feels best for you. Some options that might feel nice include writing your reflections in a journal, using these questions to facilitate a conversation with a friend or loved one, bringing these questions to a therapist and talking them through in a therapeutic setting, making art about your responses to these questions, recording your stories in voice memos or videos, using these questions as jumping off points to create a series of affirmations to take into the new year, or using these questions as part of a naming and releasing ceremony and offering the answers to a fire.

Feelings

o What would you name the feelings that visit you when you think about the new year?

o Do you have a long relationship with these feelings?

o If so, what have you learned about co-existing with these feelings, when they have visited?

o When these feelings visit, what do you think they are wanting, or needing, or hoping for?

o What do these feelings tell you is important to you about the new year?

o Are there other feelings also present for you?

o Who in your life knows that you are feeling these feelings?

o Do you know anyone else who is or has felt similar feelings?

o How did this other person (real or fictional, present or absent) navigate these feelings?

Fear of leaving behind

o What cherished dream, hope, memory, relationship, or other valued thing are you afraid you will have to leave behind in the new year?

o What does it say is important to you, that you would not want to leave this behind?

o Why do you think you might either be asked to leave this behind, or be forced to leave this behind?

o Is there a way to hold onto this cherished thing in some way?

o Is this cherished thing connected to a person, pet, or place that you love?

o What might it mean to this person, pet, or place, that you cherish this thing so much and that you do not want to leave it behind?

o Have you ever been in a situation where you either had to leave something behind, or you were afraid that you would, and you have gotten through it?

o What helped you get through it?

o Have you ever been able to hold onto a piece of some cherished thing even as time and distance passes?

o Have you ever seen someone else hold onto something as time and distance passes?

o What did that person do to hold onto, or witness, or honour, or stay connected to whatever it was that they were able to hold onto?

Fear of what waits

o What are you concerned waits for you in the new year?

o Have you ever faced something like this before?

o If so, what have you learned about your ability to respond to this kind of concerning situation? Are there things you can do again, or things you would like not to do?

o What values have you held onto in responding to this kind of concerning situation?

o Has anyone that you know (either real or fictional, present or absent) ever faced something like this?

o If so, how did that person respond to the situation?

o Are there ways that their response can help you respond to this situation, either through things you would like to do, or things you would like not to do?

o Why are you concerned about whatever it is?

o What does this concern say about what’s important to you, what matters to you, what you value?

o Does anyone else in your life know that you are concerned about this?

Affirming what is true (Most of these questions come from David Denborough’s book Retelling the Stories of Our Lives, and can also be found online at the Dulwich Centre, and in my online course An Invitation to Celebrate. If you are grieving, like I am, this might be hard and emotional. Be gentle with yourself.)

o What does, or did, your loved one see when they looked at you through their loving eyes? 

o How did they know these things about you? 

o If they could be with you today, what would they say to you about the efforts you are making in your life? What words of encouragement would they offer? 

o What difference would it make to your relationships with others if you carried this knowledge with you in your daily life?

o What have trusted people said about what they cherish in you?

o What do you know to be true and good about yourself?

o What difference might it make in how you respond to what is concerning you, or to what you’re worried about leaving behind, or in how you respond to the feelings that are visiting you, if you stayed connected to these encouraging true stories about yourself?

Taking care

o What can you do to be gentle with yourself tonight, and in the days and weeks to come?

o Who might support you in these actions of care?

o What is the history of these actions? 

o How did you learn to take care in these ways?

o Are these actions of care connected to your community or to cherished people in your life (present or absent, real or fictional)?

o What does this kind of care tell you about what’s important to you, or what you value?

o Is there anyone who you might be able to support in their actions of care over the coming hours, and days, and weeks?

Connecting and sharing stories

If any of these questions resonate for you, or are helpful in getting through this night, and the coming days and weeks, I would love to hear about it.

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